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Why Is It So Hard to Get Documents from the National Archives About the National Archives?

While researching my book on the history of presidential libraries, I discovered a shocking but perhaps not surprising situation: the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is improperly withholding its own records. Theoretically a non-partisan as well as non-political agency, NARA is at the center of some of the most controversial issues of our time, including government secrecy, executive privilege, and timely access to presidential records. Rather than abide by legislative requirements and professional standards, NARA has chosen to avoid accessioning and processing many (if not most) of its own records dating back more than forty years. Worse, officials have blocked access to the records, perhaps due to concerns over possible criticism of the agency.

Among many other functions, NARA oversees the twelve presidential libraries. The records of the Archivist detail the development of the libraries through 1964, when NARA created the Office of Presidential Libraries (NL). However, none of NL’s records are available. According to NARA’s own estimate, this amounts to more than three quarters of a million pages. While the records schedule required the vast majority to have been accessioned or destroyed decades ago, NARA has never even begun the process.

During my research at the Archives, I was able to examine the records of the Archivist that deal with the roughly twenty-five years from the planning of the Roosevelt Library through the acceptance of the Hoover Library. After that time, the public finding aid for RG64 (Records of the National Archives) stops mentioning presidential libraries. I began seeking access to NL’s records in October 2006 and did not learn of their status for almost eight months. After several unexplained delays, NARA finally told me in June 2007 that officials consider every record that NL has ever created or received as “operational” (NARA’s term of art for records they deem “necessary for current operations or reference”) and available only through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. NARA also informed me that, as the records had never been processed or even described, I would have to make the requests without any sort of finding aid.

The status of NL’s records is remarkable, not only for the lack of compliance with the schedule and even minimal professional standards, but given NL’s role in leading the often-controversial presidential libraries. It is also unique within the federal government, contrary to NARA’s claim that is it “quite common.” Units within federal agencies and executive departments routinely hold on to certain kinds of records longer than others (sometimes for decades), but they do not retain, indefinitely, every document. The schedule would prohibit this, 1 but so would concerns about space and preservation. For roughly their first thirty years, the National Archives followed their regulations for its own records, preserving, processing and making them available to the public. It is unclear exactly when or why that changed.

In an informal survey of federal historians, archivists, records managers and FOIA officers, I have not been able to identify another agency or department that has withheld every document it has ever created or received for any reason, much less as necessary for current operations or reference. According to Dr. Harold Relyea, a Specialist in American Government at the Congressional Research Service and a prominent authority on federal records, no part of the federal government other than the intelligence community even uses the term “operational records” – and then only to refer to ongoing classified operations.2   Dr. Relyea confirmed that to his knowledge, no agency, department or unit within the federal government has ever withheld every one of their records as current or “operational.” 3

Dr. Patrice McDermott, Director of OpenTheGovernment.org, a non-partisan coalition working for open, responsive federal government, said, “It is hard to understand how records that are old enough to have been destroyed if the records schedule had been followed can be considered ‘operational.’ Presidential libraries are an area of keen congressional and public interest and information about them held by NARA should be affirmatively disclosed to the greatest extent possible.” 4

Over the past thirteen months I submitted several FOIA requests, which for the most part have gone unfilled or ignored. According to NARA, over seven hundred and forty thousand pages from NL’s files were potentially responsive to my first request.5  To date, I have only received about two hundred and fifty pages from NL’s records through FOIA.6 NARA has availed itself of many bureaucratic maneuvers to avoid or delay releasing the records, from simply not responding for several months at a time to threatening to impose many thousands of dollars of up-front search and processing fees to claiming that they cannot find any responsive records. 7 

In the past, allegations about improper withholding of records have been levied against the libraries with the assumption that the former president or his supporters have tried to block potentially-embarrassing information. In this case, I am seeking access not to presidential documents but to NARA’s own records; however, the reasons why NARA is reluctant to release them seem to be the same. Regardless of any potential criticism that may result from disclosure, NARA is obligated to release them. Steven Aftergood, Director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, told me, “Because NARA’s own conduct is implicated in these records, the National Archives has a special responsibility to make them readily available. And they have failed to do so.” 8

Since June 2007, NARA FOIA officials and NL staff insisted that NL’s records were vast, unprocessed and unorganized, and that these were the reasons for the delayed and non-responsive FOIAs. This contrasts sharply with what Sharon Fawcett, Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries, told me during an interview in April 2008; namely, that NL held only a very small number of records, which had been arranged and described (but not reviewed). 9  After ten months of blind FOIA requests, Ms. Fawcett revealed the existence of a “finding aid” for NL’s records and promised to send it to me within one week. She then delayed its release for ten weeks. It was only after I contacted the Archivist, Allen Weinstein, that I received a reply – and, finally, the folder list. When the folder list arrived, it was accompanied by a letter from Ms. Fawcett with a wholly manufactured excuse for the delay. 10 

Ms. Fawcett also told me that the reason why NARA had not produced anything responsive to the site selection process for presidential libraries was that NARA has never had a role to play in the process, and therefore would hold no documents. 11  She said that NARA finds out where a presidential library will be located the same day that the public does.12    This strains credulity, and contradicts a memo written by a NARA official dated January 11, 1997 to then-Archivist John Carlin in advance of an early meeting with President Clinton regarding his library. The author of the memo urges the Archivist to remind the president that “NARA can play a key role in assisting the President in making the site decision…Provide evaluation criteria and assess the viability of competing sites...Provide the rejection for sites not selected in accordance with the President’s wishes…NARA through the Office of Presidential Libraries has a long history of assisting Presidents with the planning, development, and establishment of Presidential Libraries.” 13  Ms. Fawcett, then-Deputy Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries, is the author of the memo.14

Responding to my concerns, Dr. Page Putnam Miller, former Executive Director of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History (now the National Coalition for History), said, “I was pleased to see in Allen Weinstein's introduction to the National Archives' 2006 to 2016 strategic plan that the agency's goal is to ensure that the nation's records ‘are usable and accessible.’ This goal should apply regardless of a researcher's topic and of concerns of possible criticism directed at NARA.” 15  Dr. Anna K. Nelson, Distinguished Historian in Residence at American University and a frequent presidential library researcher, said, “The appalling part of this is that the institution we rely on to support access [NARA] is denying access...it is a terrible situation. It is outrageous that they are not willing to share their historical records.” 16

In light of the charges of favoritism, excessive limitations, and withholding that have been leveled against the libraries in the past, it is ironic that researchers now have greater access to records in any presidential library than to the records of the federal agency charged with administering them. If NARA can improperly withhold records that they deem may be inconvenient or embarrassing, they can withhold any record. This is a cause for great concern, given the regrettable ways in which the Archives has responded to recent presidential records issues. 17  If NARA will go to great lengths to avoid releasing routine records in order to avoid possible criticism of themselves and of former presidents, how will they treat requests for potentially-explosive records in the recent – and future – presidential libraries?


1 In fact, the records schedule for the National Archives is no different; however, with respect to at least the Office of the Archivist and NL, NARA is significantly out of compliance.

2 Harold Relyea, telephone interview with the author, April 29, 2008.

3 Harold Relyea, telephone interview with the author, July 6, 2008.

4 Patrice McDermott, email message to the author, June 28, 2008.

5 Ramona Oliver, letter to author, August 23, 2007.

6 Quarterly narrative reports from the presidential libraries for three specific FY quarters. I have also received through FOIA roughly three hundred additional pages related to presidential libraries from the Office of the Archivist. Ironically, three of those pages comprise the memorandum referred to in Note 13.

7 In response to one FOIA request, NARA granted my request for a waiver of fees and then informed me that no documents could be found that were responsive to my request.

8 Steven Aftergood, telephone interview with the author, June 26, 2008.

9 Sharon K. Fawcett, recorded interview with the author, Washington, DC, April 18, 2008.

10 In her letter to me of June 26, 2008, Sharon Fawcett claims that she told me during the interview that her staff would have to review and redact the finding aid – actually a box/folder list – before sending it to me, a lengthy process that would delay delivery. In the recorded interview, and in an email to me three days later, Ms. Fawcett promised to send me the document within one week. At no time did she ever mention any review process, or communicate with me in the interim to tell me that the document would be delayed.

11 Sharon Fawcett interview.

12 Sharon Fawcett interview.

13 Sharon K. Fawcett, “Briefing paper for meeting with the President,” Memorandum to John Carlin, Archivist of the United States, and Lewis Bellardo, Deputy Archivist of the United States, January 11, 1997. Released to me through FOIA from the Office of the Archivist, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC.

14 In fact I found extensive evidence that NARA has played a direct role in helping presidents and the private foundations select a site for their library, as recently as the George H. W. Bush Library, which opened in 1997.

15 Page Putnam Miller, email message to author, June 29, 2008.

16 Anna K. Nelson, telephone interview with the author, June 13, 2008.

17 Executive Order 13233; missing White House emails; Information Security Oversight Office; the Controlled Unclassified Information Office; and others.